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Tora Bora, Kandahar see intense fighting

Anti-Taliban forces capture Kandahar airport

JALALABAD, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Anti-Taliban forces reportedly captured the Kandahar airport Thursday and as many as 3,000 anti-Taliban fighters were massing at the foothills of the Tora Bora mountains to hunt for Taliban and al Qaeda leaders thought to be hiding there.

A local commander and Taliban sources told CNN that anti-Taliban forces have taken control of the Kandahar airport even as the Taliban have reportedly agreed to surrender the city beginning Friday.

Anti-Taliban, ethnic Pashtun fighters had been encircling Kandahar, the largest remaining Taliban stronghold, and battling for the airport that controls access to the southeast side of the city.

Opposition forces had partial control of the airport Wednesday but made a strategic pullback, according to tribal leaders, to allow for a more intense bombing campaign than could be conducted if they remained on airport grounds.

CNN's Brent Sadler says the skirmish at the al Qaeda base at Tora Bora in the White Mountains is the beginning of the ground assault (December 5)

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CNN's Nic Robertson reports Taliban forces in Kandahar are continuing to hold out despite alliance pressures (December 5)

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There also were airstrikes southwest of Kandahar and near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Details remain unclear about the surrender of Kandahar but Hamid Karzai, the newly appointed leader of Afghan's transitional government, and the Taliban's former ambassador to Afghanistan both told CNN that the Taliban will surrender control of Kandahar to local tribal elders on Friday.

West of Kandahar, tribal leaders in Helmand Province said Thursday that the area was no longer under Taliban control.

Also on Thursday, the Marines base south of Kandahar was put on high alert, after it appeared that some people were firing weapons at the base. The Marines returned fire with mortars and small arms.

A Marine spokesman said the firing was in response to a credible threat of a possible enemy attempt to probe the camp's outer defenses. The base is known as Camp Rhino.

Two Marines also were injured as a result of an accident involving a UH-1 "Huey" helicopter at the base. The Pentagon said the helicopter experienced a "hard landing" and caught fire about 1:20 a.m. local time ( 2:50 p.m. EST). The injuries were described as "non-critical"

Entrenched Taliban, al Qaeda at Tora Bora

In the Tora Bora mountains, anti-Taliban forces are extending an intense effort to surround and dislodge several hundred Taliban and al Qaeda fighters -- possibly including Osama bin Laden -- thought to be entrenched in a network of underground caves and tunnels.

The mountains are located about 20 miles south of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan.

The opposition forces have been pounding away at al Qaeda positions with Soviet-era tanks, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. U.S. airstrikes also hit the al Qaeda positions.

In Washington, Marine Gen. Peter Pace said at Thursday's Pentagon briefing that anti-Taliban fighters had begun moving through the valleys of the Tora Bora mountains. Those forces are being supported by U.S. air support and are working with U.S. Special Forces teams in the area.

B-52 and B-1 bombers and an F-16 fighter jet struck targets in and around Tora Bora, and an EP-3 surveillance plane was flying over the area. Pace said the cave complexes are being hit with 500-, 1,000- and 2,000-pound bombs.

Anti-Taliban commanders said their fighters were meeting stiff resistance from al Qaeda forces but noted the capture of what they called important caves in the lower reaches of the mountain range. Opposition forces took electrical and water supplies, machine guns, munitions and a number of four-wheel-drive vehicles from the caves.

Some of the battles were what opposition commanders called close-quarters fighting in the area's caves and woodlands.

While U.S. officials have said they do not know bin Laden's whereabouts, they have said the Tora Bora complex of mountain caves and tunnels -- which may include high-tech security defense features -- is a key focus in their attempt to capture him and other members of his network.


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